“Creative individuals are often considered odd, or even arrogant, selfish, and ruthless. It is important to keep in mind that these are not traits of creative people, but traits that the rest of us attribute to them on the basis of our perceptions. When we meet a person who focuses all of his attention on physics or music and ignores us and forgets our names, we call that person “arrogant” even though he may be extremely humble and friendly if he could only spare attention from his pursuit.”
Many artists and creative people are different from the average person. Have you ever met an artistic person who seemed self-absorbed, aloof or reserved, even cold? These traits seem to pop up again and again in artists. The question I’m interested in asking is why?
In a word, it’s because their minds are “preoccupied.” Creative people who are serious about their work usually have a deep preoccupation with it. A painter constantly scans her world, looking for inspiration for the next piece. A novelist at a party is half there in the room, half observing the scene for interesting characters or plots. A poet is always lacing words together and forming sentences in her head.
This mental “preoccupation” may be why artists seem weird.
That’s why they’re aloof, even awkward, in conversation. It’s because their attention span is often split between the external world and something else—who knows what?—and often they won’t seem totally there. That is, they might be thinking of something else, something that may relate to their work. On the other hand, most people find it easier to experience the external world with all their attention, with all their senses.
For the artist, every conversation they have, every walk they take, every party they attend is used, consciously or unconsciously, as inspiration or even raw material for their work. How can they be fully present in the moment when, in the back of their heads, there’s another conversation happening?
The downside of this trait
Now, this isn’t always positive personality trait. Seeming “preoccupied” around your friends or family isn’t desirable. People are narcissists—they want to hear and talk about themselves. Nobody wants to be around a cold, self-absorbed person—it threatens his or her vanity.
So for the artist, this causes problems in their social life. Life’s not easy when everyone sees you as weird—it only strengthens the artist’s tendency to withdraw from the world and wallow in self-pity.
When you’re judged as strange, it only makes you want to retreat, like a slow, inferior animal that grows a hard shell over its back for defense. The problem with retreating into “defense mode,” though, is that it can protect you in the short term but will come back to bite you in the long run.
But there’s an upside to having this obsessive disposition—being preoccupied with a problem, a painting, or a plot is necessary to do great work. It’s necessary if you’re to make art that changes a domain.
The tragic artist
However, if you become too engrossed with your work and too absent-minded around others, something ugly can happen: Slowly and slowly you might slip away from the real world and, since you start losing that fundamental connection with other people, you fall into a self-destructive lifestyle, a vicious cycle full of pride which can only be soothed by drinks, drugs and self-loathing.
This is where the myth of the tragic, romantic artist comes in—and the story never ends happily.
Here’s an example. I just finished reading a beautiful memoir by Anne Roiphe called Art and Madness: A Memoir of Lust Without Reason. The narrator and main character, Anne, recounts her experience being married to her brilliant husband, Jack. Jack was a student of philosophy and literature and wrote plays. He was probably autistic—the most intense form of self-absorption—and desperately desired fame for his writing. Jack drank heavily and spent his evenings with prostitutes.
Jack was obsessed with work; he vowed that if he didn’t reach profound success by age 26, he’d kill himself. To Anne’s horror, Jack’s first big play bombed—it received bad reviews across the board and sent Jack into a deep, irreversible depression.
Jack is an example of a tragic artist. He allowed his self-absorption to get so out of control that it ruined his life. For artists who follow this path—one of lust without reason—their pride can swell so much that work becomes more important than their well-being, their loved ones and, in Jack’s case, their sanity.
Committing to both your art and your life
The key, then, for the artist to live happily and successfully with their “preoccupied” and “self-absorbed” nature is to know when to break off from their work, get outside themselves and enjoy life. Balance is key.
I wrote an article a while ago about the importance of harmonizing both solitude and solidarity in your creative life. Go read that article now if you haven’t already. Because if you’re a creative person who finds his or her work so engrossing, so therapeutic that all you want to do is disconnect from the real world to make art, then you’re headed for stormy waters (read: mental anguish).
The reason is because the more you sit in solitude and toil on your craft, the more egocentric and preoccupied you’ll become when you rejoin the real world. It’s better, I think, to balance both your creative passion and your real life.
Consider the consequences of being an extremist obsessed with your art—you may create novel work, but you’ll end up so estranged from others that it won’t matter. So don’t assume that just because you don’t perfectly “fit in” with others you must cut off from society, retreat to a cabin in the woods and write a novel.
It’s probably better to balance both ends—to commit yourself to your work and to your life—even if you are a hopelessly eccentric artist.